Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 | 2 a.m.
A wooden structure tucked behind two palm trees in the front yard of a house on Blackthorn Drive in Sunrise Manor is visible when drivers turn into the east Las Vegas neighborhood.
The slanted roof and white-painted planks house a tall, vibrantly decorated refrigerator, embossed with a sea-green shark that wields curved octopus-like arms tossing produce into its gaping mouth.
The fridge and accompanying pantry are titled “The Solidarity Fridge,” which was created by resident Victoria Flores. Neon pink signs are pinned above the fridge and covered in drawn sunflowers. One sign reads, “Community Fridge & Pantry All Are Welcome.”
This message rings true for the community members it serves, Flores said.
“The community actually fuels you back,” she said. “You put love in your community, and then they give love back.”
Flores erected the fridge, near Charleston Boulevard and Christy Lane, May 1 on International Workers Day. The pantry is typically stuffed with foods like dried beans, bags of rice and canned soups while the fridge holds produce and water bottles. Rarely will residents see highly processed junk foods or sweet treats, Flores said.
“I’m not going to turn down donations unless it’s open or expired,” she said. “If I wouldn’t eat it, I wouldn’t leave it here. But that’s another thing that I want our communities to learn more about: healthier alternatives instead of all the junk that we consume.”
Like the miniature free libraries that populate some Las Vegas neighborhoods, the fridge sustains itself through donations from other Las Vegans, though Flores says she will restock it if necessary. The fridge allows residents to take what they need and give what they can while enriching the neighborhood and the people that live there — something more broadly referred to as mutual aid.
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Reciprocity is key to mutual aid projects, said Robert Futrell, professor and chair of the department of sociology at UNLV. Charity implies one person gives to another, he said, while mutual aid movements benefit both or several groups that interact with them, though not necessarily equally.
This practice has been common among disadvantaged communities for years, Futrell said, because mutual aid projects often fill a gap in government assistance to those in need. Futrell said he thought that during the pandemic, this need became more urgent. “We’re experiencing a long disaster, in a way,” he said. “Within what we might term ‘marginalized’ communities, marginalized from the mainstream, or marginalized from resource access and support services … (communities) fill in the gap by providing aid together.”
When Gia Santos — a single mother who lives down the road from the fridge with her three kids, two dogs and a cat — lost her job in property management in April 2020, she used unemployment insurance and then rental assistance for over a year to keep her family afloat.
But the addition of the fridge in May provided much needed relief. Santos said she now paid a quarter of what she used to at the grocery store, visiting the fridge once a week for essentials like rice, beans, canned goods, produce and pet food, the latter provided by resident Malia Meyer.
“It’s just a feeling of gratitude, and it’s nice to know that someone cares about the struggles of what people are going through during this time,” Santos said. “It was very reassuring, and she just made it so comfortable for anybody to go to the fridge whenever needed.”
Flores has partnered with local organizations like the Fifth Sun Project and Las Vegas Liberation to fill the fridge and supply residents in need with hot meals. Every Sunday, Flores and a group of volunteers cook at least 60 plant-based meals for homeless people in Las Vegas using leftover groceries from the fridge.
Ezli Amaya, president of Fifth Sun Project, said the Sunday meals were usually vegan to show how a plant-based diet could be tasty, healthier and better for the planet.
“There’s other people that are struggling, that sometimes go without a meal or don’t have access to healthier foods,” she said. “Collectively we’ve all come to an agreement that eating more plant-based foods is a lot more sustainable. It’s healthier, and it’s what we’re striving for.”
The Las Vegan Food Bank has also collaborated with the fridge by donating leftover vegan grocery boxes, initially given to the food bank by the Las Vegas Culinary Academy, food bank director Chris McNulty said.
If there are leftover grocery boxes or residents do not pick theirs up, the food bank will donate the boxes to the fridge to eliminate wasted food. Approximately 35% of all the 229 million tons of food in the United States is wasted or unsold, according to the national nonprofit ReFED. Efforts like this limit that burden, McNulty said.
“We all live in the same community, and we’re all human beings, and we all want to make sure that the people who need things are taken care of,” he said.
After the hot meals are prepared and boxed, Las Vegas Liberation then brings the dishes to homeless camps around the city.
“Our heavy reliance on a system that exploits us and leaves so many without basic humanities can be broken by developing our own safety nets/programs,” Kenny Fawkes, one ofthe eight directors of Las Vegas Liberation, said via email. “The importance of providing these small humanities becomes clearer and clearer with each passing day.”
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The Solidarity Fridge also bridges the wide gap between east Las Vegas residents and fresh food, Flores said. The area lacks access to affordable healthy grocery stores, adequate transportation to reach the closest ones and education about healthy foods.
However, donations do not just come from nonprofits, nor do they solely come from eastside residents. Aimee Holdredge, who donates to the fridge every other week, lives in Summerlin, while Henderson resident Nichole Beer drops off groceries every Thursday on her way home from work as a librarian.
“This is as grassroots as it gets,” Beer said. “We go to the community that we serve. They should not have to come to us.”
Beer said she was excited to see the fridge expand, especially because soon it will be neighbors with a mini-library, built by Flores and other volunteers.
On Thursday, Flores shared progress on the library on The Solidarity Fridge’s Instagram account. Though she uses social media to spread word of the fridge, she said world-of-mouth and door-to-door interactions have helped residents learn about it.
“There’s more power in a collective than individualism,” she said. “We need each other, you know? So a lot more can be done together than separated or just by myself.”